Monday, April 30, 2007

Paradiso

Dante Alighieri, in his imagination, was led by Beatrice to the portals of Paradise. Here, in one of Gustav Dore's illustrations of the Divine Comedy, the poet and his guide are awed by a vision of souls circling the Divine Throne.

And here, in this new composite photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope, we are given a vision of celestial realms far more astonishing than anything Dante might have imagined, a rich region of star birth and death in the Milky Way Galaxy, the Carina Nebula. Surely, we are ready to move on from the anthropomorphic deity and fluttering souls that our new understanding of the universe has shown to be baseless and inadequate. But surely, too, we can exclaim with Dante: O glorious constellation! O mighty stars/ pregnant with holy power which is the source/ of all of whatever genius may be mine. (Canto XXII l. 112)


(Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Style

"You arrange, the thing is posed/ What in nature merely grows," wrote Wallace Stevens. There is no mystery deeper, nor philosophical problem more enduring, than the relationship between reality and language. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's stylish gift

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Grazing on history

Back in the late 50s and early 60s, when I was a graduate student in physics at UCLA and Notre Dame, all of us graduate students, in every field, who imagined ourselves to be aspiring academic intellectuals, at some point made ourselves aware of the "big books."

I'm thinking of those magisterial, multi-volume surveys of human history, such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Lynn Thorndike's History of Magic and Experimental Science, Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization, or Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History.

We didn't necessarily read these things cover to cover to cover to cover to cover to cover; we had no time for that. But we made ourselves aware of their contents. These books were the foundation upon which we would build our intellectual lives.

A necessary foundation. Every intellectual life begins with the realization that accidents of birth are poor criteria for truth. In my case, it was awakening to the fact that being born into a Southern American, white, middle-class, Roosevelt Democrat, Roman Catholic family didn't mean that the rest of the world was Southern, American, white, middle-class, Democrat or Catholic. Having delved the "big books," it was apparent that some healthy skepticism was in order.

Which does not mean, of course, that we threw off completely the traditions into which we were born (which is impossible, in any case), but at least we learned to see the epistemological equivalence of other traditions, avoid dogmatism, and seek consensus where we could find it.

The last time I was in Chattanooga (to bury my mother) I was sitting in a cafe next to a young woman who attended a local Bible college. She had her textbooks spread out on her table, from several fields of study, including biology, all of them Christian themed -- the American equivalent of the madrasah schools of Islam.

As I write these words, I am sitting in the College Commons of a Roman Catholic college to which I have given must of my adult life. All of us who work and teach here -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- value the best in the Catholic tradition, and freely examine that tradition in the light of modern learning. Textbooks across the curriculum are the same as those used in the great secular institutions of learning, and our faculty is the best we can acquire regardless of faith tradition. The college actively recruits students from other nationalities, races and cultures, not to proselytize or convert, but to broaden the horizons of our mostly white, middle-class, American, Roman Catholic student population. The first priority of the college is to teach our students to think. All of which leads to some lively discussion about what is or should be the mission of a nominally Catholic college,

Meanwhile, I don't know if anyone reads the "big books" anymore. Perhaps in the age of let's-pop-off-to-Thailand international travel and the internet, students are not so likely to be as parochial as we were in the 1950s. On the other hand, a bit of the "big books" spirit couldn't hurt the Bible colleges of middle America or the madrasahs of Pakistan.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The imperfect is our paradise

The Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
It is reasonable to ask, why, in a cyberspace teeming with millions of blogs, I sit here in a quiet corner of the house or College Commons each morning and compose these few words. I click "Post" and off they go to God knows where. I am grateful that they are read, but it is not to be read that I write.

I write because I have reached that age -- seventy years -- when I look around me and see a slovenly tangle of a life, a serendipitous stumbling from A to B. I know where I am but I haven't a clue how I got here. I stand on such a summit as I have found and see no trace of a path. I remember briars, and mire, and sunny glades, and freshets, and deep pools. I recall meeting strangers. I don't recall map or compass.

Each of these posts is a jar of sorts, placed on a hill amidst the sprawl, in the deeply Catholic sacramental hope that it will assert a dominion, make order out of chaos. I'm looking for that single sentence that will summarize -- something as glassy clear and shapely as those wide-mouthed jars that lined the shelves on my grandmother's back porch pantry in Tennessee, and which may have been the inspiration for Stevens' poem.

I go back to my dog-eared and well-thumbed Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, especially those poems like The Idea of Order at Key West, The Poems of our Climate, and Add This To Rhetoric that I discovered as a young man -- scraps of paper in a trackless wilderness, covered with words, flawed words, stubborn sounds, but somehow full of promise, evidence that someone had gone that way before and perhaps, just perhaps, reached a place of repose. Here is what I learned from Stevens, the single sentence that will summarize: "There never was a world for her/ Except the one she sang and, singing, made."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

If you are looking for the bluebird of happiness...

...it helps to have neighbors with meadows, hedgerows, fruit trees, organic gardens, and nesting boxes designed especially for bluebirds.

I have such neighbors. My walk to college each day takes me through conservation land administered by the Natural Resources Trust of Easton. It would be hard to imagine a habitat more perfectly suited to a bluebird's needs, and my friend Bluebird Bob sees to it that the birds are well housed.

Electric blue, robin-red-breasted, plump, round-shouldered insect snatchers flitting through the branches of the crabapple tree: Who can see a bluebird and not be happy? The naturalist John Burroughs heard its song as "pur-i-ty, pur-i-ty." Others hear "tru-al-ly, tru-al-ly." No one with an ounce of sentimentality in their soul doubts that bluebirds are both pure and true.

It's great to see them back after decades of absence. When I came to New England in 1964, bluebirds were few and far between. As I recall, that was the same year I read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The book exposed the massive, indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially DDT, and gloomily assessed the consequences for the environment. So successful was Carson's call to action that within months of the book's publication many states and foreign countries banned DDT. In 1957 the U. S. Department of Agriculture sprayed 4.9 million acres with the poison; in 1968 the figure had dropped to zero.

DDT is no longer an issue in the U. S., but huge amounts of other pesticides are still dumped into the environment. Everyone wants picture-perfect lawns, healthy trees, and supermarkets stuffed with abundant, flawless produce. I've got weeds between the bricks in my backyard patio that I would love to douse with killer. The chemical industry urges us on with "yes, yes, yes."

"Pur-i-ty, pur-i-ty," the bluebirds call. And those of us who are pleased to see these delightful birds return to our neighborhoods can only answer "Tru-al-ly, tru-al-ly."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Since the world began...

The philosophy of the present day...is neither scoffing, nor presumptuous, nor destructive. Since the world began, there never has been so deep a reverence for truth, so keen a sense of the fallibility and limitation of the intellect of man, so earnest a desire to build up some theory of this wonderful universe that cannot be shaken by the questioning of a child, so profound a yearning "Im Guten, Ganzen, Wahren, resolut zu leben" [to live resolutely in the good, the whole and the true: Goethe] as among the scientific workers of this age and generation.

Never has there been so clear an appreciation of the unity of all phenomena, and hence of the absurdity of both materialism and spiritualism. Never has the consequent necessary identity of of the methods by which truth of all kinds must be attained been so clearly obvious as it is now. And, therefore, never has the attempt to set bounds to scientific inquiry and to the extension of the scientific method into every subject concerning which a proposition can be framed, proclaimed itself at once so fatuous and so impotent as now.
It is not hard to catch here the voice of that old scraper Thomas Huxley, lecturing the churchmen and politicians of the British establishment, who while giving lip service to the practical applications of science (steam engines, telegraphs, railroads, etc.) resist any scientific inquiry that would erode the divine affirmation of rank and privilege.

At the heart of Huxley's argument is a dismissal of the archaic distinction between natural and supernatural, material and spiritual. There is one world, he argues, and no part of it is out-of-bounds to empirical examination. No, no, tut-tutted establishment divines; do away with the distinction between God and nature and you shatter the foundations of a civilized society. Nonsense, replies Huxley. Religious feeling and morality are part of human nature, quite independent of theology. If we want to be good and whole and true, let us reverence truth wherever we can find it and retain a healthy sense of fallibility.

A century-and-a-half later, the likes of Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert are taking up Huxley's cudgel. Eton and Oxbridge have lost their preeminence, but supernaturalism is as rife as ever. "Suave and illiberal" churchmen and politicians from Washington to Tehran still evoke the supernatural to buttress their authority. The G-word appears on their lips as piously as flag pins appear in their lapels. They are happy to accept the technological and medical conveniences of empiricism, but they hold fast to faith-based theories of the universe that were obsolete even in Huxley's time.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Celebrating the commonplace

The plan was to return from our tropic island to a warm New England spring. Instead, we arrived to rainy, bone-chilling weather, and that aching feeling that we had returned too soon. But the dreary wait was worth it. When spring finally returned last weekend it came in a blaze of sun-drenched glory. What a joy to be in the meadow when the temperature soared overnight from 30 to 70 and the mourning cloak butterfly came flapping out of winter hibernation to semaphore its Gloria in excelsis Deo.

The morning cloak is our only butterfly that overwinters as an adult. It fills its veins with self-manufactured antifreeze and goes to sleep in some crevice or cranny. On the first warm days of spring it bursts forth like a silken hanky from a magician's sleeve.

In all things lepidopterous I have been inspired by Vladimir Nabokov, who from the age of seven chased butterflies across three continents. He published 20 scientific papers in entomological journals, and was invited to be a research associate at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology between 1941 and 1948. His American butterfly collections are now housed at Harvard, Cornell, and the American Natural History Museum. Not bad for someone we know almost exclusively as a novelist.

In his autobiography, Speak Memory, Nabokov wrote: "The highest enjoyment of timelessness...is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude..." The possibility of learning more and more about butterflies drew Nabokov ever deeper into the world of the senses, through layer upon layer of concrete details, receding into inexhaustible mystery.

This, it has always seemed to me, is the proper trajectory of a life: from the concrete to the ineffable, from the particular to the universal. The opposite trajectory is fraught with idolatry and self-deception. Begin with the answers, as many do, and the commonplace becomes shallow, shabby, uninteresting. But begin with a mourning cloak butterfly resurrected from its winter sleep, flagging its magnificent wings of purple velvet trimmed with gold, and maybe -- just maybe -- one might catch an intimation of the spine-tingling Mystery that shines in the face of creation.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Of pumpkins and velvet cushions

"Art is I; science is We," said the great French physician Claude Bernard.

Which says a lot in six words.

Science is consensus, and because of that it is pretty much confined to the simple. It is no accident that science had its origin in astronomy, describing the motions of mere dots of light across the sky. It took rather longer to bring the experimental method to bear on the human body, say; Bernard was himself a founder of modern experimental medicine. Above all else, science is a way of finding and compelling a convincing We. Everyone on the planet is bound together in that We -- though medicine and technology -- even if some of us scorn science or don't know a molecule from a mastodon.

The We is there to put constraints on the I, to rein in megalomania, to short-circuit the divine rights of kings and the infallibility of popes. The We is there because we cannot live in an anarchy of I's.

But every individual life is -- or can be -- a work of art. The I carries us beyond the simplicities of science. Is it not the We that meets God at the boundary between knowledge and mystery, but the I. Science takes us to the limits of consensus, but only the I can step through the door into infinity.

I pondered these matters the other day after spending a hour-and-a-half outdoors with Professor Mooney and seven students from her environmental ethics class. We did some We-ing. We talked about Frederick Law Olmsted under the curious gaze of tree swallows. We ran our hands across glacial striae and looked at glacial erratic boulders. For an hour-and-a-half we were a We.

But we were also nine I's. On Whale Rock in the deep woods, with sunlight streaming through the trees, we read fragments from Thoreau, who taught us as much as anyone about finding a balance between We and I. He left the woods for as good a reason as he went there, he tells us. He urged us to build castles in the air -- and then take care to give them proper foundations.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

More things are learnt in the woods...

...than from books; trees and rocks will teach you things not to be heard elsewhere. You will see for yourself that honey may be gathered from stones and oil from the hardest rock.

The words are those of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in a letter to a young monk. They borrow from the Old Testament. Some of you will recognize the epigraph from Honey From Stone. Can we learn more from twining plants than from Holy Books? Do pigeons and geese teach us as much as preachers and prophets? See this week's Musing.

As usual, thanks to Anne for gracing the site with her Sunday art. Click to enlarge.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Cognitive dissonance

When I used to teach a general studies course called The Universe, it was my habit to make a ten-foot wide model of the Milky Way Galaxy on the classroom floor with a box of salt. (For dramatic effect, I asked the students to push back their desks, then began pouring the salt without a hint of what was coming.) Against the dark tiles, salt makes a pretty convincing galaxy.

But the best part of the demonstration came when we started discussing what was wrong with the model.

First, there were not nearly enough salt grains in a pound of salt to represent the number of stars in the galaxy (hundreds of billions). A back-of-the-envelope calculation and the students discovered to their amazement that I should actually have poured 10,000 boxes of salt on the floor!

Which led us to the second thing wrong with the model: the salt grains were way too big to be stars in a ten-foot galaxy. Another back-of-the-envelope calculation. If salt grains were Suns within a galaxy, they should be thousands of feet apart. To get everything into proportion, I should sprinkle my 10,000 boxes of salt out on a classroom floor that is nearly as big as the Moon's orbit.

Still, we had a bit of fun, and I know for a fact that the demonstration stuck. I meet students from decades ago who say, "Remember the time you spilled salt on the floor?"

And now we have the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph that shows galaxies as numerous as salt grains. To have as many galaxies as the Hubble potentially reveals I would need ten thousand boxes of salt, with each grain representing ten thousand boxes of "stars."

It's not easy to get one's mind around these things -- hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. The difference between the universe revealed by modern astronomy and the universe of Dante's Divine Comedy is -- well, simply incommensurable. Few of us have taken aboard the implications of the new cosmology. Psychologically, we still live pretty much in the human-centered universe of Dante, watched over by a humanlike deity just up there in the Empyrean Sphere.

Friday, April 20, 2007

As beautiful as the names of goddesses

A few line from a poem of Erica Funkhouser:
Still, my father taught us to worship facts.
The very words cotyledon and feldspar were enough
to bring him to his feet with praise.
He found them as beautiful as the names of goddesses...
My own father had a reverence for facts -- stark facts, simple facts. They did not have to mean anything or be part of some big beautiful theory. They just had to have a firmness, like a tool that one could hold in the hand, a hammer, perhaps, with which to knock some sense into the world. He loved facts that he could plot on tissue-paper-thin K&E graph paper, see the rise and fall of neatly penciled lines. With his precise hand he labeled each data point with a name. I never heard him utter an abstraction. He liked words that were attached to things.

Meanwhile, in church and parochial school we were learning litanies, long devotional lists of essentially meaningless words:
Mirror of justice, pray for us.
Seat of wisdom, pray for us.
Cause of our joy, pray for us.
Spiritual vessel, pray for us.
Vessel of honor, pray for us.
Singular vessel of devotion, pray for us.
Mystical rose, pray for us.
Tower of David, pray for us.
Tower of ivory, pray for us.
House of gold, pray for us.
Ark of the covenant, pray for us.
Gate of heaven, pray for us.
Morning star, pray for us
I still say litanies, but now the words are attached to things -- things that beat and breathe and weave and wave and splash and have weight in the hand -- and for that I thank my father. How about a dragonfly litany?
River jewelwing, pray for us.
Smoky rubyspot, pray for us.
Aurora damsel, pray for us.
Powdered dancer, pray for us.
Fawn darner, pray for us.
Flame skimmer, pray for us.
Little blue dragonlet, pray for us.
Calico pennant, pray for us.
Etc.
Amen.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Intercessory prayer

There have been a slew of "scientific" studies lately purporting to measure the efficacy of intercessory prayer. This would all be rather silly if large amounts of money -- including taxpayers' dollars -- were not being spent on what may be the world's least useful medical research.

The granddaddy of the recent spate of interest was Doctor Randolph Byrd's investigation published in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988. Over a 10-month period, Byrd randomly divided nearly 400 patients in a coronary care unit at the San Francisco General Medical Center into two groups. One group was prayed for by born-again Christians outside the hospital; the control group received no assigned prayer. Neither physicians nor patients knew which group the patients had been assigned to. According to Byrd, patients receiving intercessory prayer required less ventilation therapy and fewer antibiotics and diuretics than the control group. The differences were statistically marginal. Nevertheless, Byrd's conclusion: God intervened.

However, no significant differences were noted in such variables as length of hospital stay or mortality. (Curious that God would moderate a few symptoms but let just as many of the prayed-for patients die.) Furthermore, Byrd's study has been faulted on statistical and procedural counts, even by some who believe in the power of intercessory prayer. Also, given the impossibility of knowing who has actually been prayed for, by whom, and how often -- many prayers are offered by the faithful for "the sick" in general -- it is hard to imagine how any study of Byrd's sort can be conclusive one way or the other.

What is true of Byrd's investigation is also true of other medical studies of intercessory prayer. Most have shown no positive result, and in every case differences between prayed-for patients and the control group have been statistically marginal. If God chooses to answer prayers, he certainly doesn't do so in a forthright way.

Of course, any such project is futile. Surely the creator of the universe has better things to do than participate in pseudoscience. Doctor Gil Gaudio, writing on Medscape, proposes (tongue in cheek) an experiment that would put the matter to rest. Enlist a large number of amputees, identified by a DNA sample. Have millions of believers pray that a designated half of the subjects regenerate missing limbs. A control group would not be prayed for. No need to worry about statistics. Even a single regenerated limb among the prayed-for amputees would give a skeptic pause.

The creator of a hundred billion galaxies should have no more trouble adding limbs to amputees than diminishing the need for diuretics in heart patients. A substantial number of regenerated limbs among prayed-for subjects would be a stunning indication of the effectiveness of prayer (I would certainly take notice), but a negative result will have no effect on believers. They will go right on offering petitionary prayers, and mistaking coincidence for answers.

I suspect most amputees would rather put their faith in the scientists and engineers who are devising ever more lifelike prostheses. And, who knows, maybe genetic researchers will discover a way to actually regenerate limbs. After all, some species do it. Without magic.

If this posting sounds unnecessarily cynical, here is some balance.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Examination of conscience

I have been reading Stephanie Smallwood's Saltwater Slavery, a close examination of the trade in human beings between the coast of West Africa and the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a sobering read, but if there is one thing I came away with, it was this: We have an enormous capacity to rationalize the most horrendous crimes.

Everyone involved in the slave trade -- the European owners of the ships, the masters of the trading companies, the ship captains and crews, the plantation owners in the West Indies and the Chesapeake, the African tribal chiefs who captured and sold their neighbors to the European merchants -- knew in some part of their souls that what they were doing was wrong. All of them -- good Christians among them, pillars of their communities -- found ways to rationalize their participation.

Who among us is immune to self deceit? To what extent am I implicated in the horrendous tragedies that are Darfur and Iraq? What do I owe to the global environment? Is there such a thing as innocence when we are so intimately connected that people in Fiji and Japan will read these words only moments after I write them?

What about science, the favored subject of this blog? Here is Smallwood:
The littoral [of the West African coast]...was more than a site of economic exchange and incarceration. The violence exercised in the service of human commodification relied upon a scientific empiricism always seeking to find the limits of human capacity for suffering, that point where material and social poverty threatened to consume entirely the lives it was meant to garner for sale in the Americas.
Even science, like religion and democratic politics, can be pressed into the service of evil.

We are all of us to some extent in the grip of economic forces as powerful and sometimes as pernicious as those that drove the saltwater slave trade. Few of us are required to personally face the direst evils. We are saved from moral anguish only by the fact that our acts of commission and omission ripple outward until their consequences are diluted and lost in the general happiness or unhappiness of humankind.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Now for a commercial break


My novel In the Falcon's Claw is back in a beautiful U. S. paper edition from Cowley/Rowman & Littlefield.
(From flap copy) It is the year 998 A.D., two years before what much of Christian Europe believes will be the year of the Apocalypse. Strengthened by the devotion of a fearful and superstitious populace, the Church is seeking to harness a decaying Holy Roman Empire by asserting its absolute authority in interpreting the will of God. So Aileran, abbot of a now-abandoned island monastery off the coast of Ireland, a man once believed to be a saint, is called to account for heresy. His accuser is his best friend, Gerbert, the charismatic fellow monk who first introduced Aileran to literature and geometry, to the pleasures of the flesh and perhaps to sin; Gerbert, now known as Pope Sylvester II.

Alone in self-exile, racked with pride, guilt and despair, Aileran struggles to make sense of the events that have led him to this pass. He recalls his idyllic childhood, which ended in violence; his education and adventures in the most renowned monasteries and courts of the age; and above all, his passionate and troubled relationship with the woman Melisande, who changed everything. Eventually Aileran will have to come off his beautiful and desolate island to stand trial and to confront Gerbert and the woman he failed in love. But before the year 1000 dawns, one heretic at least will have to die.
Los Angeles Times: Moving... memorable... a richly poetic book about beauty and destiny, at once compelling and complex.

Le Figaro Litteraire: A novel of never-ending pleasure... superbly innovative...a work of rare and irreverent intelligence.

And here, Aileran and Melisande read from a medieval bestiary and improvise upon it. In those days, every animal had a metaphorical meaning:

"I am the bird Ercinee," said Melisande. "My skin shines so brightly that I illuminate the overcast day. You will find me by the glow of my desire."

I am Hyrcus, I answered, the He-goat, buring for your sex. Adamant would melt in my hand.

"I am Catus, who pursues the mouse. I catch it in my mouth."

I am Talpa. the blind mole, who burrows in the hollows of the earth. I nibble at the roots.

"I am Apis, who draws nectar from the flower. See the silver drop. I lay up honey in my comb. See how industrious I am, how agreeable."

I am Salamandra, who prevails against fire. I live in the heat of the blaze without being burned. I extinguish the fire, yet I am not consumed.

"I am Turtur, the Turtledove. I love my first love only. I enfold him with my wings."

I am Grus, the Crane. I am never tired. I will watch you as you sleep.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Higgs


Consider the recent cover of Science reproduced above. You are looking at the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the several particle detectors being prepared for next year's debut of CERN's Large Hadron Collider particle accelerating machine. The detector weighs 13,000 metric tons and is installed in a hall 10 meters underground. You can get some sense of scale by comparing it to the two physicists in the lower left corner. The accelerator itself resides in a 27 kilometer-long circular tunnel on the French-Swiss border. It will generate energies seven times higher than any previous "atom smasher." The cost? Billions.

And what do the physicists hope to see? They would be very happy to produce the Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle", a hypothetical subatomic particle predicted by current theory. The Higgs, if it can be coaxed into existence, will endure for only a tiny fraction of a second. To tell the truth, the researchers don't know what they will find as they push their energies ever closer to those that existed in the immediate aftermath of the big bang.

Implausibly, a subatomic-sized black hole created in the accelerator, might gobble up the Earth, or, alternately, a stable "strangelet" might accrete ordinary matter and convert it into strange matter. Poof! The end of the world. But not to worry. If the physicists suck the world into oblivion, it will happen so fast that we won't have time to wring our hands and rue.

Some folks call the giant particle accelerating machines the Gothic cathedrals of our time. The medieval cathedrals at least promised eternal life to the poor believing souls who provided the funds. The European taxpayers who are mostly footing the bill for the Large Hadron Collider will get scant reward for their bucks -- a particle that has vanished within microseconds of its creation. But, Lordy, even skeptics must admit that the thing is a wonder -- the most elaborate machine ever conceived and executed by the human mind.

Some years ago, Britain's Minister for Science, William Waldegrave, issued a challenge: Can physicists explain -- on a single sheet of paper -- what the Higgs boson is, and why it is important to find it? The taxpaying public, he said, has a right to ask "Why?" He offered a bottle of vintage champagne for the best response. Not one to pass up a drink, I offered the following -- in verse:
Democritus imagined
a world of atoms
bumping in the void
(we are abuzz with them,
he thought). Leucippus
and Lucretius gave ascent.
And so it went till Thomson,
Rutherford, and others
discovered nature's trinity--
electrons, protons, neutrons.
How simple! These three
were enough to explain
all that exists. But wait.
As physicists banged
these particles about, others
proliferated like bubbles
in champagne -- pions,
muons, neutrinos, quarks,
and so forth -- a froth of troubles
for searchers of simplicity.
More! Electrons, for example,
interact, repelling. How?
By exchanging photons, Richard
Feynman said. Quarks too
get sticky by passing gluons
back and forth (a subtle bit
of Dicky physics, but it worked).
And what of the force called
"weak" between, say, a neutron
and an electron, clearly
not electric. Well, let those
particles too exchange a kind
of anti-glue, called W's and Z's.
All these -- and more -- the
physicists found with their
machines (God's plan, it seems,
is not inscrutable to man).
But one, alas! The Higgs,
the heaviest of all, the particle
that passing back and forth
gives all the others mass.
To make it will require
more energy and purse
than you and I possess.
To make things worse,
no one knows for sure exactly
what the Higgs might be, or if
it exists at all. Lest the physicist's
earnest pleas for funds fall
on unreceptive ears, call
it "the God Particle."
There! Who will deny so grand
a quest: to wrest God's
secret plan from nature's grasp.
Cough up. A billion, please,
or ten. Send those protons
flying on their circumferential
path, to crash, to splatter
a shower of Higgses. Ephemeral,
costly, inconsequential,
yet -- a flash, a radiance of mind,
the dream of Democritus
confirmed at last. The Final Theory
(for the time being).
What's that, you say? No cash?
Then share, Mr. Minister,
at least, your bottle of champagne,
perhaps in vino to inspire the folks
in Geneva (and the U. S. and
Russia and Japan) to find
a cheaper way. The search
for the boson
goes on.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Waiting for spring

A playful Musing this chilly April morning.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday gift.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Raids on the unspeakable

The other day the Wall Street Journal had a front page article on the new, militant European atheism. Americans will perhaps know it best through Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion, which remains high on the bestseller list. Apparently the aggressive atheist movement is widespread in Europe, partly as an angry response to militant Islam.

So much shouting. First from Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, and now from the God-debunkers. What a pest is that little word "God" that we use it so handily to bash each other. What certainties it evokes, what hatreds, what intolerances, what noise!

And yet, and yet...

What other word do we have for that aspect of the world that overwhelms us in silence, that lights up every atom and star from within, that sometimes causes us to fall to our knees with a "thank you" on our lips, even though we have no idea who or what to thank?

When I am in New England, my day begins with a sunrise walk to the college, arriving just as the first fresh coffee gurgles in the Common's urns. I slip off with my laptop to the darkest, quietest corner to write these daily reflections. But first I try to listen. To the silence.

In a letter to the Indian scholar Amiya Chakravarty, Thomas Merton wrote:
It is not easy to try and say what I know I cannot say. I do really have the feeling that you have seen something most precious -- and most available too. The reality is present to us and in us: Call it Being, call it Atman, call it Pneuma...or Silence. And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained; the happiness of being at one with everything that is hidden in the ground of love for which there can be no explanations. I suppose what makes me most glad is that we recognize each other in this metaphysical space of silence and happiness, and get some sense, for a moment, that we are full of paradise without knowing it.
What brings me so often back to Merton is his sense that all of the great religious traditions find their unity in silence, that all spoken theologies are idolatrous, that the most authentic religious experience occurs at those moments when -- without asking -- our soul is rung like a bell and we feel the vibration to the core of our being. There is then no tension between theism and atheism, religion and science. The experience is pure and existential, grounded in the almost infinte complexity of our neural circuits and their interaction with a world that is mysterious beyond our knowing. To name the experience is to make a Golden Calf. But if it must have a name, "God" has a venerable pedigree.

Unfortunately, the word comes encrusted with such an overlay of Neolithic personhood and magic that to use it is to risk misunderstanding by theists and atheists alike.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Green spirituality

On several occasions here I have written about Roman Catholic professed women -- nuns -- it has been my pleasure to meet, Dominican sisters and Sisters of Saint Joseph, who are pioneering a new kind of creation spirituality. They celebrate the universe as described by science, and cultivate a loving relationship with the Earth. They aspire to a life of natural simplicity that spurns consumerism. They honor Church tradition and the wisdom of Scriptures, but, as far as I can tell, they are not terribly interested in abstract theology. Their relationship with God is very much in the spirit of Clare and Francis of Assisi.

Now Sarah McFarland Taylor, a scholar of religion at Northwestern University, has written a book about the sisters I have met, and -- it turns out -- their many, many like-minded colleagues around the United States and Canada. Taylor is not a Catholic, but she is clearly impressed by these extraordinary Catholic women. Her book is called Green Sisters, and is published by Harvard University Press.

While the Catholic patriarchy in Rome goes about shoring up theological orthodoxy and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the women described by Taylor forge a mix of environmentalism and spirituality that the planet and humankind sorely need. Catholic tradition has a strong, if often repressed, thread of creation spirituality that makes sacraments of earth, air, fire and water and liturgies of the cycles of nature. Catholic monastic tradition has valuable lessons to teach about how to live a balanced life of prayer, work and study. The Green Sisters are reviving these important traditions and giving them contemporary relevance.

Kudos to Sarah McFarland Taylor for bringing this important movement to wider public attention. The Green Sisters presumably walk a fine line between the sweet authority of the Earth and the authority of Rome. Let us hope that the flow of transforming energy is from their organic gardens and simple oratories westward to the Renaissance palaces of the hierarchy. Rome claims to hold the Keys to the Kingdom. If I read them correctly, the Green Sisters want to throw away the keys and open a gracious universe to all of us.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Spear-Wielding Chimps Seen Hunting Bush Babies

Well, well. That headline in Science caught my eye. Our nearest neighbors on the family tree of life. Ninety-six percent of our DNA the same. Researchers in Senegal observed wild chimpanzees sharpening the tips of sticks with their teeth, then using the sticks to jab small primates called bush babies. It seems chimps are smart enough to arm themselves with weapons. And humans are dumb enough to behave like chimps.

If I remember rightly, I was about 12 years old when I first came across Francisco Goya's collection of etchings called The Disasters of War. I knew nothing of Goya, nor of the subject of the etchings, the Spanish insurrection of 1808 and the resulting war with Napoleonic France. I looked upon those terrible pictures with a child's innocent eyes. Anyone who has seen them will not have forgotten them. Bodies without heads or limbs impaled on trees. Soldiers splitting naked bodies lengthwise with swords. Unmitigated scenes of rapine and slaughter. It probably did not cross my young mind to wonder how humans could do such things to each other. I had been taught in school about original sin and the power of Satan in the world. The horrors depicted by Goya were surely the work of the Dark Angel.

I no longer believe in Satan. Nevertheless, the intervening years have provided ample evidence of the human potential for violence. In Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Iraq and dozens of other places around the globe, we go on butchering those who are not of our own clan.

The story of the chimps and the bush babies reminds us that the savageries depicted by Goya came with us into the world from our mothers' wombs. The myth of original sin may embody more truth than many of us care to admit. Our hope lies in the wondrously adaptable human brain, which confers upon us the practical equivalent of free will. Violence may loom large in human history, but an ever-increasing number of us choose to live our lives on the non-Luciferan side of the line.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mind over matter, or mind over mind?

For the past 28 years, in a basement lab of Princeton University's engineering school, a group of researchers have been investigating the power of mind over matter. Physicist Robert Jahn was until recently director of Princeton's Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR). He and his assistants were determined to demonstrate that thought can alter physical reality.

In a typical experiment, a computer spits out random numbers that average 100. A subject stares at the computer screen and wills the machine to produce numbers that fall below 100.
The numbers average 99.86. Then the subject restarts the experiment and wills the machine to go high. This time the average is 101.14. The idea is to show that these results can be obtained consistently, in trial after trial.

In other experiments, a computer controls a beating drum or spouting fountain. The concentrating subject wills the drum to beat faster or the fountain to spout higher.

Jahn believes he has demonstrated that mind can effect the outcome of about two or three in every 10,000 random events. But now, after more than a quarter century of marginal "success," Jahn is shutting the lab down.

Needless to say, most scientists scoff at Jahn's results, attributing apparent deviations from randomness in the experiments to statistical flukes, experimental error, or bad experimental design. In an interview some years ago, Jahn attributed the negative reaction to his work to "scientific stodginess." In other words, the scientific establishment is stuffed with closed minds.

Maybe yes, maybe no. As in all aspects of science, and especially for extraordinary claims, Jahn's work stands or falls depending on whether his results can be consistently replicated by skeptics in carefully-controlled, independent experiments. So far, this has not happened.

Nearly 400 years ago, Francis Bacon wrote: "What a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes." And this is the danger that lurks in every search for truth. Even the most fair-minded observer can be led into error by unconscious or unexamined prejudices. This is particularly true in experiments like those of Jahn and his colleagues where the size of the effect being observed is close to the level of random variation.

That is why all such work should be considered with a large grain of salt. Science may indeed be "stodgy" and slow to accept revolutionary ideas, but it is that way by design. History has taught us how easy it is to see what we want to see.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Whispers and rhymes

There was a time in my youth -- my 30s -- when I aspired to be a poet. I typed out sheaves of poems on my manual Underwood and even sent off one or two that were published. I would be embarrassed to come across them now. It is easier to write bad poetry than bad prose, but harder to write good poetry than good prose. At age 15, Franz Wright sent off a poem to his father, the poet James Wright. The father wrote back: "You're a poet. Welcome to hell." The Wrights are the only father/son poets to have independently won a Pulitzer Prize. I took the easier prose road and never looked back.

But the roads traverse the same landscape. Franz Wright calls it "my country/ where night/ rhymes with light, death/ with breath." The country I have chosen to write about is science, where light and dark are part of a continuum, and the boundary between life and death is maddeningly indistinct.

There are no absolutes in science: no unalloyed good and evil, light and dark, spirit and matter, soul and body, supernatural and natural. No capital letters. We make our halting way in a land of whispers that time has composed of an alphabet we have only begun to learn -- a land where everything rhymes with everything else. Here is the rest of that little poem by Franz Wright: "And from childhood on the gift/ of seeing the world the way/ the dying see/ it: things shining/ in the light of their imminent disappearance."

Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter Monday. Ice on the water meadow

"I have that haunting feeling that spring this year again performed all her old tricks and showed me just how life is made and what it is made of, but her hand has such sleight and she so distracts the attention with waving green scarves and birds let loose from the loft that just when you think it is time now to watch carefully, the thing is done."

So writes Donald Culross Peattie in "Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists." He might have been talking about the New England spring, which mostly isn't, until one day it was and you wonder how you missed it.

The Peattie quote is from his chapter on Jean Henri Fabre, the French entomologist who devoted his life to the study of insects and their near relations. Fabre spent much of his time laying in ditches or crouched in the grass peering in on the private lives of spiders, caterpillars, beetles and ants. Of the naturalists chronicled by Peattie, Fabre spent his life closest to the ground. And maybe that's where spring has been happening all along.

Water striders and whirligig beetles overwinter as adults, which means they are out and about early in spring. Spittle bugs, leaf beetles, tent caterpillars, solitary bees: These too appear early to catch the first saps and nectars of the season. Their increase is slow and steady, unlike the sudden jolt of the thermometer from the 30's to the 70's that deludes us into thinking spring didn't happen. Insects are the steady tick-tock of the season. One thing follows another. No mourning cloak butterflies until sap is flowing at broken twigs. No spider webs until there are winged insects to snare. No caterpillars until there are young leaves to feed on. No nestlings in the robin's nest until the first big hatch of insect grubs.

Jean Henri Fabre had no other ambition than to chronicle the lives of insects, and winter sent most of his beloved creatures to their nests, burrows and egg cases. He welcomed spring for the signs and signals we seldom notice -- the hum, flitter and skitter of ten thousand tiny creatures winding up into activity, teaching us again how life is made and what it is made of. That hum, flitter and skitter is the season's sleight of hand caught in the act.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The sacred commonplace

It seems to be generally agreed that the word Easter has its origin in the languages of pagan northern Europe, and refers to "dawn." Nothing is more commonplace or more welcome than the daily rising of the Sun. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Easter gift.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Black forehead, white feet

I shouldn't have read the story.

Wendell Berry, our most distinguished environmental writer, has a children's story in the January/February issue of Orion, our most distinguished environmental journal. It is called Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World, and will soon be published as an illustrated children's book.

Whitefoot is a mouse. A field mouse. Berry asks us to compress our minds to her size: "Think of going about with your eyes only an inch or two from the ground, among grass stems thicker than your thumb, weed stems thicker than your wrist, maple and oak leaves that you can hide beneath, trees that touch the sky." And so on for seven pages. By the end of which, Whitefoot has taken our hearts.

Now the problem is this. We returned a few days ago after a winter away from our New England home to a mouse infestation of our pantry. Lordy, what a mess. Clearly, we had a bunch of fat, happy mice -- and something drastic needed to be done.

Down to the local hardware store for some traps, a few of the standard flat-board Victors, and a couple of nifty new easy-load, easy-dispose plastic snappers from the same manufacturer (at three times the price). So far, four mice -- sweet, pathetic Whitefoots, dead under the bar, looking up with accusing, lightless eyes...

...and Wendell Berry making me feel guilty as sin. The final words of his story: "At the center of the world, on the silted and soiled floor of the woods, among the shadows of the moony night, she went about her still-unfinished task of staying alive." Thanks, Wendell.

It's not easy staying alive. In the entire animal kingdom we are the only creature that chooses not to kill other species on ethical grounds. Whitefoot is no doubt an endearing little beastie, but she doesn't lay awake in her cozy nest of shredded cereal boxes mulling the morality of pantrycide. Me, I write these words on Ash Wednesday, repenting.

A technological aside: Traditional trap -- three mice. Fancy new version -- one.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bugs R us

My sister Anne, who gives us our Sunday art, expressed a particular interest in my Musing three weeks ago on the creatures that inhabit our bodies, inside and out. Now she wonders (tongue in cheek, of course) if they think our thoughts for us. As described in the link she sent me, the rat parasite Toxoplasma gondii causes its host to forget its natural aversion to feline pee -- with unfortunate consequences for cat and rat, but a neat advantage for the parasite.

Toxoplasma gondii can infect humans too, and perhaps even jigger our brains, as Anne whimsically suggests in the title of her e-mail: Thoughts are worms.

Speaking of worms, consider the nematodes, a spectacularly diverse and abundant family of tiny critters that live just about everywhere. I always liked this description by N. A. Cobb that appeared in the 1914 edition of the Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture:
If all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes and oceans represented by a thin film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable, since for every massing of human beings there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.
Imagine, Anne, that every atom of your body suddenly vanished except for your bugs. For an instant, until it dispersed, there would be left behind a ghostly replica of yourself, made entirely of living creatures, from bacteria to mites. Eyebrows. Scalp. Armpits and groin. Toenails and teeth. The caves of your nostrils, mouth and ear canals. The curling Amazon of your intestines. Billions upon billions of now homeless organisms exquisitely remembering your form.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Right-left -- Part 2

Why did life adopt one form of handedness rather than the other? Scientists have been pondering the question for decades, without success.

One theory suggests that the handedness of organic molecules had its origin in radiation from a supernova that bathed the Earth as life had its beginning. All supernova radiation is polarized; that is, the light is emitted in a corkscrew fashion, either to the right or left. Research has shown that polarized radiation can cause chemical reactions to favor one chiral form of molecule rather than its mirror-image twin.

If this is true, then the handedness of life had its origin in an exploding star.

Other scientists have proposed the weak nuclear force as the source of nature's handedness. This is the force that governs the radioactive decay of a neutron in an atomic nucleus into a proton and an electron. It is the only fundamental force of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force are the others) with a built-in twist; the electron always emerges with a left-handed spin.

Experiments confirm that left-spinning electrons can weakly bias chemical reactions toward one chiral form or another. If this is the source of the handedness of biomolecules, then the twist of our visceral organs may be connected to an asymmetry at the heart of matter.

But the handedness of life may have a much simpler source. Stirring of chemical solutions can cause reactions to go one way rather than another. Perhaps life got started in a "warm little pond" that was stirred by wind or currents. Maybe in some complicated way the twists of life are related to the spin of the planet itself.

Whatever the explanation turns out to be, the lesson of chirality is clear: We are all part of a piece. Conch shells, honeysuckle vines, the human heart, exploding stars, whirling planets, decaying neutrons: no part of this twisted, beautiful world can be abstracted from any other.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Right-left -- Part 1

If there's a national food of the Bahamas, it's conch, the hefty sea snail that thrives in Bahamian waters.

Like many snails of land and sea, the conch secretes an ever-enlarging cone-shaped shell as it grows. The shell has a whorl, and the whorl is almost always right-handed; that is, it curls clockwise when viewed from the point of the spire. Rarely, a conch has a left-handed whorl. Such oddities are called "sports," and they are valued as collector's items.

Only a very few species of snail -- the Perverse Whelk, for instance -- commonly curl in a left-handed fashion. The handedness of the whorl is genetically determined, but there would appear to be no other reason why a snail's shell should curl one way rather than the other. Both sorts of snails exist in nature, mirror images of one another.

Honeysuckle takes on a left-handed twist as it grows; some other vines spiral to the right. Most vertebrates, including humans, are bilaterally symmetric, externally at least. Inside it's a different story. Our hearts are off-center and have a twist. So do our intestines.

The handedness of a vertebrate's internal organs is constant for a given species. Like the "sport" conch, a mirror image arrangement of internal anatomy sometimes happens, even for humans. Normal organ placement is called situs solitus; the mirror image is called situs inversus. Generally, an individual with all organs reversed suffers no ill effects, but partial reversals can be damaging.

In recent years, scientists have been figuring out the subtle genetic signals that cause a developing embryo to twist one way rather than the other. A gene called Pitx2 seems to play a crucial role in the internal handedness of vertebrates.

The twisted fabric of life goes much deeper than spiral shells or lopsided hearts. Even the very molecules of life have a handedness, or chirality. Proteins and DNA have a helical twist, which is constant across all domains of life. More basic molecules, such as sugars and amino acids (of which proteins are made), come in both right- and left-handed forms, but all life on Earth uses only right-handed sugars (dextrose) and left-handed amino acids.

There would appear to be no reason in principle why creatures made of right-handed amino acids or left-handed sugars couldn't exist. The exclusive use of one chiral form of molecules rather than the other is evidence for the relatedness of all terrestrial life by common descent, and the conservation of handedness over time.

(More tomorrow.)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Full Moon

In transit yesterday, from one of my parallel universes to another. Sorry to have missed you. Tom was going to post, but we had a communication mix up.

I should have put off my return to New England for few days. Last evening was the full Moon, the very best time for walking the night beach in Exuma.

Thoreau was a nighttime walker. The outdoors at midnight, he said, is as unknown to most of us as Central Africa. He wanted to explore it and didn't waste full Moons: "What if one moon has come and gone with its world of poetry, its weird teachings, its oracular suggestions, and I have not used her? One moon gone by unnoticed?" Walking by moonlight he felt a tide in his thoughts. A Moon tide. Pulling him upward. "How insupportable would be our days," he wrote in an essay on night and moonlight, "if the night with its dews and darkness did not come to restore the drooping world."

The full Moon after the Spring equinox was, in former times, variously called the Egg Moon, Grass Moon, or Paschal Moon. We don't pay much attention to full Moons anymore. Certainly, once I'm nestled down in the all-night ambient light my New England town I will hardly notice when the Moon is full.

Two hundred years ago, before electricity, a full Moon made it possible to travel safely at night. In England, a group of entrepreneurs, including Josiah Wedgwood (of pottery fame), Matthew Boulton (of steam engine fame), and Erasmus Darwin (of grandson fame), established a Lunar Society that met each month on the night of the full Moon to socialize and exchange ideas. In the course of their moonlit meetings they consolidated the Industrial Revolution and helped launched humankind upon a new course of middle-class democracy.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Dinosaur extinction

For this week's Musing I interviewed Dr. Robert "Ace" Ayprel, the iconoclastic paleontologist. He had some interesting things to say.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday art.